A Return to the Golden Age of Travel

A Return to the Golden Age of Travel

Words by Christine Van Dyk

A well-coifed woman pops out of a yellow cab in front of the TWA Flight Center, marching into the building to the syncopated sounds of bongo drums. We watch as she ducks and dodges past stewardesses and ladies in pill hats, pausing only momentarily to check out the last-minute arrivals that tumble over on the departure board.

It’s a glimpse into New York City in the 1960s. Glamorous Swanky. The very definition of a “Golden Age of Travel.” And yet this scene from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel TV series wasn’t filmed on the back lot of a Hollywood studio. This is the original TWA Flight Center that opened in 1962. The iconic winged structure is now the TWA Hotel, newly resurrected and open near Terminal Five of the JFK Airport.

“When you walk up, you are immediately taken by the vintage cars parked outside,” Lauren Denney, a curious New Yorker who recently visited the hotel, said. “It helps transition you from the modern world to the 1960s, especially in conjunction with the Jet Age architecture of the building, which reminded me of an episode of The Jetsons.”

In the center of the lobby there’s a sunken lounge carpeted chili-pepper-red. It’s a vibe that is glamorous and sexy as hell. The setting practically begs you to order a martini while smoking a cigarette and listening to the sounds of Dean Martin. This is one of three bars where you can order drinks with names such as Mile-High Margarita, Control Tower Sour, and the Quickie Vacation. There’s also a pool bar and a place called Connie, a cocktail lounge which is unlike any you’ve ever visited before.

Connie is a Lockheed Constellation, a retro airplane-turned-bar from 1958. The plane sits outside on the tarmac and is entered by climbing up vintage airstairs. The interior has been converted into a fully functioning lounge that affords guests a taste of 1960s glamor while the cockpit and forward remain just as they were when Connie flew the skies. Both are in museum-worthy condition.

More than a place to grab a quick drink on your journey from here to there, the TWA Hotel is where you want to be seen. It’s chic and special in a way things rarely are these days. Commissioned by Howard Hughes and designed by Eero Saarinen, it was once the airline’s Transatlantic hub until it was abandoned in 2000, shortly before TWA declared bankruptcy for the final time. Today it has been reimagined in all its trippy-but-stylish glory.

“The first sound you hear when you walk into the lobby is the click, click, click of the departure board,” Lauren says. “There is retro music playing over the speakers, and everyone appears relaxed and in no hurry to go anywhere. It's like something between a museum and a movie—like you’ve stepped onto a set without being outfitted properly.”

It’s a common feeling, that sort of time warp that transports you into a world where you don’t quite belong. Maybe it’s the candy-pink hair salon, the Twister game room, or the elegant staircase. One thing is for certain, you have a sudden urge to swap your joggers and yoga pants for a pair of heels and a pencil skirt.

When Saarinen imagined his neo-futuristic building, he wanted it to reflect all the glitz and promise of the Jet Age. And the swooping bird-like design, with its curves and absence of right angles, is the very reason a hotel that could have just been a flyover is instead its very own destination. The iconic design is heightened by the hotel’s crowning glory: a rooftop infinity pool and observation deck overlooking one of JFK’s largest runways. While planes land and depart all around you, it’s easy to imagine the glory days of aviation—with cocktails of course.

The original flight center is flanked by two new wings that house 512 rooms and suites. After checking into your accommodations at what appears to be an old TWA ticketing desk, you’re free to head to your room. 

While the rooms are, for the most part, typical, it’s the small touches that can’t be overlooked. To begin with, there’s a beverage tray at each door, so you never have to worry about where to place your gimlet while you fuss with your keys. Inside there are retro Life Magazines, an Etch A Sketch toy, and a fully stocked bar cart that includes cans of Tab soda. Even the bathrooms are a nod to the past with terrazzo floors and toiletries branded with the original TWA logo.

“It’s like you’ve stepped into an episode of the Mad Men TV series,” Lauren says.

And if you haven’t got the time to check in for the night, don’t worry; the hotel offers day passes for up to 12 hours. Weary travelers can avoid the crowded terminal and spend their layovers poolside or having a proper lunch in The Paris Café created by renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

After you’ve enjoyed a drink with a swizzle stick and flipped through the vintage travel guides, it’ll be time to go. You’ll walk down the tubular tunnels, whose curved walls and crimson carpet make you feel as if you’ve walked onto a spaceship, and out into the real world.

“The tubes were probably my favorite things,” Lauren said. “I have just never seen anything like it before. You almost forget you’re in an airport. And frankly, it’s almost a shock to your system to walk out the tubes and into the chaos of the gate terminal where life is suddenly a bit less colorful and not nearly as glamorous.”